Ocean Beach is the most dangerous place to swim in the entire county, according to recue figures compiles by the various lifeguard agencies that service San Diego’s seventy miles of coastline. During August, city lifeguards made 629 rescues there, more than the total for all other local beaches combined. Finishing a distant second was South Mission Beach, with ninety-six, followed by Pacific Beach with eighty-nine, La Jolla Cove with fifty-four, and Windansea Beach with forty-eight. Ocean Beach also maintains a number-one ranking among all beaches in per capita rescue figures and in annual rescue totals.
City Lifeguard Captain Bill Norton says Ocean Beach has been particularly dangerous for swimmers since the early Fifties. That’s when tons of sand dredged from Mission Bay were dumped on the ocean floor just south of the Mission Bay Channel, which marks Ocean Beach’s northern perimeter. “All that sand changed the configuration of the beach,” Norton says, by creating obstacles that interrupt the normal flow of the waves.
Conditions worsened with the subsequent construction of three jetties and the Ocean Beach pier, adds Douglas Inman of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s Center for Coastal Studies. “Because they’re so close together – less than a quarter-mile apart – the jetties and the pier cause more intense water circulation in the area,” Inman says. “The wave direction at Ocean Beach has never been totally normal,” he adds, particularly since the dredging of Mission Bay. “The alignment of the shore line with the wave crest is at an acute angle, while at most other beaches it’s parallel,” Inman explains. And when these strong, angular currents “are sharply intersected by the jetties or the pier, they’re deflected seaward, which results in even stronger rip currents.”
Inman cautions, however, that lifeguard rescue figures don’t necessarily tell the entire story. He considers several other local beaches equally, or even more, dangerous than Ocean Beach, but they’re excluded from the tally, either because swimming is prohibited or because there’s no lifeguard service. Among them are Boomer Beach, just south of the La Jolla Cove, where swimming is banned because “the waves break right over a cluster of rocks,” and the unpatrolled northern section of Windansea, “where extensive reefs channel water offshore,” Inman says. “When people say a beach is dangerous, they’re almost always talking about statistics. Some other beach might be even less suitable for swimming, but if nobody’s there, it’s not going to be called a dangerous beach.”